'We have won this war'
Omar Farooq, a senior staff member of the Turkish charity that sponsored the 'Free Gaza' flotilla, asserts that relations between Ankara and Jerusalem are finished, and that visiting Turkey will no longer be a picnic for Israeli tourists
ISTANBUL - The four-story headquarters of the Turkish charity Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH ) in the Fatih district is jammed with stressed-out people. Family members and friends of the more than 400 Turks in the flotilla - which was organized and paid for, in large part, by the charity - have been arriving by the hundreds, grasping for information, trying to learn the names of the wounded and the dead, wanting to know when the "heroes," as they are now being called, will be returning home.
Journalists have taken over the ground floor of the building, spreading out their cameras and sound equipment into every available corner and smoking as they wait for the press conferences, which are being called every few hours. And outside, groups have gathered to show their support for IHH and heap their fury on Israel. "Allah is great," they call in unison. "Israelis are killers," they chant.
Weaving their way in and out of all this chaos are some 100 IHH volunteers and staff. They are well-dressed. Calm. Polite. The staff here listens courteously to queries, finds answers, follows up on information. It's all under control. There is no running. No yelling. No disorder. Only a sense of purpose, a certain amount of self-righteousness, and a great deal of disdain. For Israel.
"We had long heard from our Palestinian brothers stories about Israeli behavior, but I always wondered if a little of it was exaggerated. Now I am convinced it's all true," says Omar Farooq, a senior member of the IHH board. He is currently the main point man here, in the absence of the influential president of IHH, Bulent Yildirim, who together with 25 IHH staffers, was onboard one of the ships.
Established in the mid-1990s to provide aid to Bosnian Muslims, IHH is today one of the biggest charities in Turkey, involved in aid missions to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Indonesia, Sierra Leone, Albania, Iraq and of course the Palestinian territories, IHH's most popular cause. Last year IHH opened a local branch in Gaza.
While Turkey's secular regime distanced itself from IHH in the early days, the charity has grown in prominence since the Islamic regime of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in 2002. However, IHH members stress they are a private institution, with no governmental backing.
Together with the Free Gaza Movement, IHH was the prime mover behind the flotilla, chartering three of the ships, including the Mavi Marmara, and recruiting and paying travel costs for all the Turkish participants.
Detractors over the years have claimed that IHH is a radical Islamic group masquerading as a humanitarian organization. In 2008 Israel banned it, along with 35 other Islamic charities, for belonging to an umbrella group called Ittilaf al-Kheir (Union of Good ), which allegedly finances Hamas.
You wanted attention, and now you have it. Was this how you envisioned it? Was the sacrifice of life worth it?
Farooq, a dapper man in his mid-40s, shakes his head but dodges the question: "We did not want to lose any of our brothers, but we did want to get some things done. We had a clear agenda - to carry relief to the suffering Gazans, and to show there is a very savage embargo on Gaza. We wanted to make those things public. We did not want anyone to die, but by making this mistake Israel has taken everything public - and Israel has lost this war. We have won."
The night of the raid on the Mavi Marmara, Farooq and others were right here at headquarters, watching the goings-on aboard the ships via a satellite link-up. "We were expecting Israel might stop these ships. It's not their right to do so, but we were expecting it anyway. What we were not expecting was such a violent attack. It is a crime, an international crime in international waters," he repeats.
Wasn't the flotilla a provocation?
"So what. Are there not many activists in Israel who provoke the Israeli authorities? But does anyone ever use machine guns against them?"
Farooq dismisses claims that the activists used weapons or started the fight. "We have footage of everything. Things are not like in the Middle Ages. We have seen everything - how the soldiers landed. How they started the fight and how they used machine guns when our people were waving white flags. They say terrorists were onboard and they say there were illegal weapons. Well, what kind of illegal weapons have they found?"
Answering his own question, he says: "You know what weapons they captured - our kitchen knives. Six knives captured from the kitchen. That's it.
What about the metal bars?
"Well, they defended themselves. Very simple."
Next, Farooq dismisses the question of security and Israeli concerns over weapons being smuggled into Gaza.
"This is a very smart and stupid question. You know that all these ships left legal states - Turkey, Greece, Britain, Ireland - and of course they checked the ships before we went. In Turkey the government checked three times. Otherwise, if you had caught a ship with illegal materials, then Turkey or whatever authorities would be in a very difficult position. So there is no way we could have been bringing in arms."
What is the upshot of everything that has transpired?
To begin with, asserts Farooq, "relations between Turkey and Israel are finished." He stops and corrects himself. "Almost finished between the government and Israel ... and totally finished between the Turkish people and Israel."
"Yes, you will all face problems when they know you are from Israel," he says matter of factly. "Before we were your picnic land. We were the only peaceful country in the region you could visit. But you destroyed that peace with your own hands."
He was never before against the Jewish people, he stresses, adding that he is a "student of religion ... but we have a big problem with this Zionist ideology of yours. And it is increasingly difficult to differentiate between the two."
"Don't expect the IHH or the Turkish people to speak sweetly about Israel," he says in parting. "Don't expect anything of the sort." Israel, he says, "must finish this embargo. Then maybe we can talk again."
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